The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has received full accreditation, a development that Governor Charlie Baker hailed Thursday as a “milestone” resulting from the agency’s “significant operational improvements.”
The state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which oversees the medical examiner, said in a statement that the ME’s office had been awarded “full accreditation through December 16, 2022” from the National Association of Medical Examiners, or NAME.
“Full NAME accreditation of the OCME ‘is an endorsement indicating that the office or system provides an adequate environment for a medical examiner in which to practice his or her profession and provides reasonable assurances that the office or system well serves its jurisdiction,’ ” the statement said.
Dr. Mindy Hull, chief medical examiner, who leads an office that reviews approximately 15,000 deaths each year that aren’t clearly attributed to natural causes, welcomed the news.
“I am proud of our accomplishments,” Hull said in the release. “NAME accreditation is significant and a validation of this staff’s dedication in working with Massachusetts’s families in their time of need. My goal now is to showcase the world-class forensic pathology institution that we are.”
Baker also praised the medical examiner’s office, which state officials said previously held only provisional accreditation.
“We are pleased that the OCME received full accreditation for the first time ever,” Baker said in the statement released by his administration. “This milestone is a credit to the significant operational improvements Dr. Hull and her team have made to better serve Massachusetts families during difficult times.”
The NAME accreditation is a sorely needed piece of good news for the medical examiner’s office, which has weathered several scandals over the past decade or so. Hull took over the office in October.
In June, chief of staff Lisa Riccobene was suspended and demoted amid a probe that she lied about her credentials. And last month, the agency faced renewed scrutiny when officials confirmed that Riccobene, despite losing her chief of staff title, which carried a $112,000 salary, would have many of the same duties after being demoted to a newly created $90,000 non-supervisory job.
Responding to a backlog of years-old paperwork in 2016, the office accelerated its processing of death certificates and autopsy reports but continued to experience delays, in part because its leaders have struggled to hire as many forensic pathologists as they would like, largely because of a nationwide shortage in the profession.
In fall 2015, the agency implemented a new organizational approach that included hiring a dozen new support staffers to do administrative tasks, and things improved.
The improvements came after the agency’s reputation had been tarnished by a series of high-profile blunders during the prior decade. In one embarrassing case, the office held onto a box of human bones including a skull when the rest of the body’s remains were turned over to a funeral home for burial in July 2007.
That prompted the firing of the office’s longtime forensic anthropologist, Ann Marie Miles, who had come under scrutiny 19 months earlier in a similar case.
In February 2009, the medical examiner’s office confirmed it had allowed the body of an Andover woman to be cremated before authorities determined whether she was the victim of a homicide.
In another case, the office released the wrong body to a Worcester funeral home the day before Christmas in 2008, then discovered the mistake at a cemetery three days later, shortly before the man’s remains were to be cremated.
In Thursday’s statement announcing full accreditation, Daniel Bennett, the state’s public safety secretary, credited Hull for turning things around.
“Under the leadership of Dr. Hull many changes have been made to increase the efficiency of the OCME and address longstanding criticisms,” Bennett said. “Since assuming the role of Chief Medical Examiner in October of 2017, Dr. Hull has established a backlog reduction program to reduce the number of unfinished cases, implemented a successful workload monitoring system to achieve the goal of completing 90% of the OCME work product (namely autopsy reports and death certificates) in 90 days, and increased efforts to recruit and retain staff.”
Globe Correspondent Matt Stout and Shelley Murphy and Matt Rocheleau of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.